The pageant of Donald Trump’s dreams
NEW YORK — Donald Trump piled into his limousine with a group of pin-up calendar models dressed in skimpy dresses. It was a snowy night in Manhattan, December 1992, and the festive group was embarking on a circuit of exclusive clubs after a sumptuous dinner at the Plaza Hotel’s Oak Room.
As the limo wove through the city, Trump discussed his views on dating, according to one of the women riding along. The billionaire casino mogul declared that “all women are bimbos” and said most were “gold diggers” who would be smart to go after men with money. Like him.
Rhonda Noggle, the model who relayed the story to the Globe in an interview, said that, at that point, she had had enough. Speaking sharply to Trump, she said, she asked him to stop the limo. The car grew silent.
“I told him I would rather be with a trash man who respected me than someone who was a rich, pompous ass,” Noggle said. “And I got out. And I took a cab ride home.”
The incident, which Trump said in an interview he does not remember, occurred on a night of socializing that kicked off Trump’s little-known dalliance with a pin-up competition called American Dream Calendar Girls.
Noggle’s assertion of sexist behavior by Trump foreshadowed allegations of misogyny, racial bias, and sexually aggressive behavior that would roil this brief and fractious deal — Trump’s debut in the pageant business in which he would in time become a major player.
It began as a planned partnership between Trump and a Florida couple, George Houraney and Jill Harth, who operated American Dream Calendar Girls, staging elaborate events in which winning contestants were featured, provocatively posed, in wall calendars. Houraney and Harth were eager to tap into the cachet and glitz of Trump and his casinos. It ended in a bitter, drawn-out legal battle when the planned partnership crumbled after the first pageant.
The couple alleged Trump broke his word, cheated them out of a $250,000 fee, and deprived them of up to $5 million in future business. More explosively, they said he continually made aggressive, unwanted sexual advances toward Harth, who was vice president of American Dream.
Harth alleged in court documents that Trump repeatedly came on to her and groped her under the table during the Oak Room dinner before the party piled into his limousine.
Trump’s alleged behavior that night — along with his statements and actions at meetings held in his Trump Tower offices in New York and at model-studded parties held at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach — would become focal points of the tawdry saga.
Trump disputed Houraney’s case in court but eventually settled with American Dream in 1997, at the same time that Harth dropped a related lawsuit she had filed detailing alleged sexual misbehavior.
Trump called the couple’s allegations “all false’’ in an interview with the Globe and played down his role with the American Dream competition — even though he socialized with competing models, hosted it at one of his Atlantic City casinos in 1993, and allowed his name to be used for branding.
“I didn’t get involved other than I rented them one of my facilities,” he said.
Trump’s involvement in the calendar model competition came at a time when his reputation as an eligible New York ladies’ man was at its peak. He was between his first and second marriages, and his personal life was regular fodder in the New York tabloid gossip pages. Two years earlier, he had been featured on the cover of Playboy magazine.
The case of American Dream Enterprise Inc. v. Donald Trump, et al. — told through hundreds of pages of court records, several sworn depositions, and in nearly two dozen interviews — shows a darker side of Trump’s playboy image.
It foreshadows a reputation for sexism and misogyny that sticks with him nearly 25 years later, in his presidential bid, in which coarse descriptions of women and perceived sexist comments have left him with extraordinarily high unfavorable ratings among women.
The foray into the Calendar Girls pageant, however, also ushered in Trump’s interest in the business of entertainment. He later bought the Miss Universe pageant and gained national renown for his reality show, “The Apprentice.”
“I don’t believe there would have been an ‘Apprentice’ if there wasn’t a pageant first,” said Jim Gibson, a consultant and longtime pageant host who guided Trump into the pageant business and eventually to the Miss Universe event. “That got him in the higher hierarchies of the television business. And it did exactly what Donald wanted to do: It built his name.”
. . .
In his senior year at a New York military boarding school, Trump was voted class “Ladies’ Man.” In college, he asked Candice Bergen out on a date (she turned him down). He has long placed high value on an association with beautiful women. “You know, it really doesn’t matter what they write as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass,” he told Esquire magazine in 1991.
By the early 1990s, he was showing up as a VIP guest at some of the pageants put on by Hawaiian Tropic, a suntan lotion company that sponsored bikini competitions in Hawaii and Las Vegas.
“He’d come to our pageants because he enjoys being around the girls,” said Ron Rice, who founded Hawaiian Tropic in 1969 and later launched the pageants. “He was kind of a regular with us.”
Trump would throw parties at Mar-a-Lago, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate in Palm Beach that Trump bought in 1985. The Beach Boys would play or Whitney Houston. But he always needed an extra ingredient.
“He’d call me up and say, ‘I’m having a big party. Bring your girls in,’ ” Rice said. “So I’d bring in a bunch of models. Sometimes he gave us rooms at Mar-a-Lago.”
In the early 1990s, Trump’s marriage with Ivana was ending and his affair with Marla Maples, a onetime Hawaiian Tropic contestant, was blossoming.
He had three casinos in Atlantic City, with ample entertainment spaces to fill, and he wanted to explore getting into the pageant business, according to Gibson. Trump called Gibson, who is steeped in the industry.
“The conversation started about potentially starting something at one of his casinos as a draw,” Gibson said. “It was a business to make money. It was a business that was not a hobby.”
Gibson set up meetings with pageant operators, including George Houraney and Jill Harth, the couple who ran the American Dream pageant.
. . .
American Dream for years held its finals competition in Las Vegas. Women selected by the judges were featured in calendars, in hot-colored bikinis or tight one-piece bathing suits as they draped themselves on the roofs or hoods of hot rods and exotic cars.
The calendar competition had been sponsored by English Leather, the men’s cologne, but English Leather ended its involvement after a change in ownership. Organizers lined up Sammy Davis Jr. as a celebrity spokesman, but he died of cancer in 1990.
Houraney and Harth, his longtime girlfriend and co-organizer of the competition, went to Manhattan to meet with Trump in December 1992. Houraney walked into the meeting carrying past calendars, photos of contestants, and pamphlets.
Quickly during the meeting, it became clear to them that Trump had something else on his mind: Jill Harth.
“Basically, Donald Trump stared at me throughout that meeting,” Harth recounted later, under oath, in a 93-page court deposition in 1996. “He stared at me even while George was giving his presentation.”
During the meeting, Houraney and Harth both allege, Trump motioned to Harth and asked point blank, “Are you sleeping with her?” Houraney said, in fact, he was.
“Well, for the weekend or what?” asked Trump.
Houraney responded that they had been living together for 12 years.
“I said, ‘OK. That’s the way it’s going to be,’ ” Houraney said in an interview, explaining why he didn’t walk out of the conversation. “My goal was to get the deal.”
He had designs on a cosmetics line, a television show, calendars, and computer screen savers that would be distributed nationwide.
Trump turned on his Trumpian charm, Harth said in her deposition.
“Where are you staying here in New York?” he asked. When he heard they were at the Ramada Renaissance, he moved them to a suite at the Plaza Hotel.
Trump wanted to meet the next night for dinner. And he had a request.
“Why don’t you bring some calendar girls with you,” Harth, in her deposition, recalled him asking. “I’d like to meet them, I’d like to see the quality of the girls that I’m going to be sponsoring.”
. . .
The next night, the group gathered at the Oak Room, an elegant wood-paneled restaurant with frescoes of Bavarian castles and 20-foot-high ceilings.
“It was us girls and him,” said Noggle, who was not a party in any of the lawsuits. “It was kind of like the arm candy, his entourage of women around him.”
Trump continued talking up the competition during dinner. He might raise the prize — now little more than an appearance in a calendar — to $1 million.
“He said he wanted to sponsor the event, he was going to sponsor the event, he was going to make this the biggest, the best thing around,” Harth said in her deposition. “With Donald, everything was always going to be the biggest, the best.”
“He had taken a liking to Jill for sure,” Noggle said. “I remember that.”
Trump looked at Houraney and gave his business partner a warning.
“You know she’s very beautiful,” Trump said, Houraney recounted in an interview. “You know I’m going to go after her.”
Harth would later allege in her deposition and her separate lawsuit — which she filed without a lawyer, seeking $125 million — that Trump that night began referring to her as his “new girlfriend.” During the dinner, she alleges, he repeatedly put his hands on her thighs and attempted to touch her “intimate private parts.”
Trump, in his interview with the Globe, denied all of the allegations of sexual misconduct.
. . .
Trump played an active role in deciding which models would be involved, in either coming to the parties or in competing in the competition, according to Houraney and Harth.
“Basically, he just wanted to make sure that the girls were up to his standards,” Harth said in her deposition. “He was always very interested in every phone call about who had the great bodies and who didn’t, who was more beautiful. He was always on the search for the most beautiful.”
Harth alleges in her complaint that Trump “directed that any black female contestants be excluded” from his Mar-a-Lago party.
Houraney said in an interview that he would send packets of 4x6 photos to Trump so that he could flip through them and decide which of the women would be invited to a party. He also used photos to select a handful of contestants who would automatically advance to the final round of the calendar competition.
Over time, Houraney discovered what Trump’s type in women was: “Blond hair. All American look. Not too tall, not too short,” he said. He also noticed another pattern: In every packet Houraney would send, he included black women. He was sensitive over charges that the contest was not diverse enough. Never, Houraney says, did Trump pick one.
Trump, in an interview, denied receiving pictures to review or excluding blacks.
“It’s all false. I don’t even know what he’s talking about,” he said. “He never sent me pictures, this and that. It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen.”
. . .
After a few weeks of negotiating, they came to terms on many aspects of a deal. It was time to celebrate. Trump invited the American Dream executive team, along with at least nine past and present calendar models, to a party at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach in January 1993.
During dinner, Harth alleged, Trump demanded that she sit next to him.
“When we got to the dinner table, Donald started right in on the groping under the table, to tell you the truth,” Harth said in her deposition.
Some of the salacious charges about what happened later that night, based on Harth’s assertions, were reported in 1997 in New York tabloids and the National Enquirer. Trump took her into an empty bedroom — the one normally used by daughter Ivanka, who at the time was 11. Trump forcibly “kissed, fondled, and restrained” her from leaving, according to Harth’s suit.
In the early hours of the morning, Harth and Houraney left. But most of the calendar models spent the night at Trump’s estate.
In the predawn hours, a contestant named Lauren Petrella — who, at age 22, was 24 years younger than the 46-year-old Trump — allegedly found Trump, unannounced and uninvited, in her bed.
“You said you don’t sleep with men on the first date,” he told her, according to the lawsuit filed by Harth. “Now it’s the second date, and here I am.”
Petrella did not respond to numerous requests for comment.
Houraney, in interviews with the Globe, said that Petrella came to him that morning and described the encounter.
“I went up to him and said, ‘Donald, what the hell are you doing?’ ” Houraney said. “He says, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘She told me she never sleeps with a guy the first night. She’s been here two days.’ I just didn’t know what to say to that. It’s such a stupid comment.
“When he started hitting on them I said, ‘Donald, not at my event. Or I won’t bring any more parties to your house,’ ” he added.
Trump kept calling Harth after that weekend, she alleged, and told her that he “was the best lover you’ll ever have,” and that if she slept with him, she “would be an awakened woman.”
Several weeks later, Harth again went to Mar-a-Lago for a meeting to discuss the competition. After some of Trump’s business associates left, Harth alleges that Trump forced her into a bedroom, made “unwanted sexual advances,” and began touching her “private parts” and “uttering Svengali-type proclamations of love.”
Harth said in the lawsuit that she immediately “became nauseated and vomited profusely.”
. . .
In an interview with the Globe, Trump said of the allegations in Harth’s complaint: “It was false.”
He declined to comment in detail on the record, however, instead pointing to a 1996 National Enquirer story while the case was ongoing.
“The truth is that Jill Harth is obsessed with ME — and would do everything she could do to get into my pants!” the story quotes Trump telling an anonymous “close friend.” “Her claims are extortion, pure and simple.”
Trump told the Globe that Houraney and Harth only introduced the sexual allegations after they were losing the arguments over the business dispute.
“Later on, they brought this up,” he said. “They were losing the business dispute angle, so they brought that up.”
In a deposition taken in 1996, Trump said he did not remember many of the details alleged. He denied asking Houraney and Harth to bring calendar contestants to the dinner at the Oak Room, and he didn’t recall riding in a limousine with them or staying out until late in the night.
In the Globe interview, he also denied knowing Petrella or crawling into her bed — “It’s total nonsense. It’s not true. I never even heard of the person!”
He also denied Noggle’s account of the limo ride, saying he never called women “bimbos” and “gold diggers.”
“I never made that statement, I never would make that statement,” Trump said. “Why would I make a statement like that? I have more respect for women than anybody.”
“You know, everybody now, they know Donald Trump. ‘Well I sat with Donald Trump for 2 minutes,’ ” he added. “I doubt she even sat with me or was in a limo with me. I never heard the name.”
. . .
“Special Invitation from Donald J. Trump” read brochures announcing the November 1993 American Dream competition in Atlantic City.
“I am proud and honored to invite you to one of the most glamorous and exciting events of the year,” Trump wrote inside. “Truly an exceptional event, I hope you will be able to join us at the American Dream World Finals, where dreams will become reality.”
In the buildup to the competition, contestants around the world were thrilled that Trump’s name was now attached to it. They called him “Mr. Trump,” and some purchased his book, “Art of the Deal,” to learn more about him.
“In my experience, Donald Trump was a real gentleman,” said Marika Silvan-Väliharju, a contestant from Finland. “He was very friendly and well-mannered. He also had charisma, which is very difficult to describe.”
After rehearsals at the Trump’s Castle Casino Resort in Atlantic City, they went to New York, to meet with Trump.
The women piled into buses, dressed in sweat pants and with rollers in their hair. When they arrived at the Plaza Hotel, they changed into evening gowns. They posed for a group photo, with Trump grinning in the middle.
One contestant — Valerie Testerman, who had started competing in Danville, Va., to win a local gym membership and then kept winning competitions — was positioned behind Trump.
“Whose hot hand is that on my back?” Trump called out, playfully.
“I was probably as red as my dress,” Testerman said. “We all kind of laughed.”
The women also took separate photos with Trump, where they walked down a long hallway to greet him.
“It was like, ‘You have 30 seconds with Mr. Trump,’ ” said Kristina Hughes, a contestant from Medford. “It was kind of like when you go and meet the queen.”
The models also noticed something else: Maples — who a month earlier had given birth to their daughter, Tiffany — seemed nervous, and would not let Trump out of her sight.
. . .
A few weeks after the contest, Trump sent a letter to Houraney.
“My congratulations to you, Jill and all your staff for successfully planning, promoting and producing a fantastic event,” he wrote. “The American Dream Festival surpassed all my expectations, and I am confident it will be bigger and better each year. Bravo for a job well done!”
But it was one of the last times Houraney would hear from Trump.
Earlier in the year, when they met at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had refused to sign a written contract. He told them verbally that they would go into business together, Houraney and Harth allege, but he wanted them to prove themselves first. Put on a good show, and they would continue working together.
Now Trump seemed to be reneging on the deal. A letter arrived from the Trump Castle saying they had lost money, and would no longer sponsor the event. Trump wasn’t calling them back anymore.
And without Trump, there would be no cosmetics line, no television contract, no nationally distributed calendar.
Houraney was angry. He thought Trump had cheated him. So he hired a lawyer.
. . .
While Houraney’s 1995 contractual lawsuit dragged on, Harth filed her separate civil lawsuit complaint on her own in April 1997, spelling out the sexual allegations.
Harth’s move came at a sensitive time. Not only were both sides in mediation for the business dispute case, but Trump was preparing in May to host the Miss Universe pageant for the first time after purchasing it seven months earlier.
Trump’s attorneys attacked Harth’s credibility and her allegations as “delusional.”
“The tone and the content of the complaint are clear evidence of mental instability,” they wrote.
The suit was meant to harass Trump, they said. It was even sent anonymously to Trump’s mother.
. . .
A few weeks after Harth filed her complaint, she dropped it as a condition of Trump settling the suit with Houraney.
Harth declined repeated requests for an interview. Asked why she withdrew her complaint, she said in an e-mail, “It was withdrawn without prejudice at Trump’s demand as a precondition to settling a companion 1995 complaint by the company I worked for. Trump did not want to litigate my complaint.
“I stand by everything written in the complaint or I would not have signed it,” she added. “It’s best for me not to comment about how Donald was then or if we reconciled now.”
Houraney was interviewed on a recent day in his home in Boca Raton, Fla. As cats meandered through the dining room, which is filled with Egyptian artifacts and an artificial Christmas tree still up four months after the holiday, he said he is still baffled by the amount of time, energy, and legal fees Trump put into the case.
Although the case had started with Houraney asking for $5 million, by the end they were negotiating over a relatively small amount.
“He owed me about $100,000!” Houraney exclaimed. “That’s it!”
Houraney says he still has the stub of a check written to him by Trump; under the terms of the deal, he is not allowed to disclose the amount.
. . .
A few months after the settlement, Houraney was shocked one day when he opened his mail.
There was an invitation to go to a Christmas party that Trump was throwing at Mar-a-Lago. He figured it was a joke, so he threw it away.
A few weeks later, he got a call from Trump’s secretary, who insisted the invitation was real and that Trump wanted to see him. Houraney’s lawyers advised him not to go.
“Curiosity got the cat and it got me,” Houraney said. “I gotta find out what this is about.”
He dressed up and arrived. When he walked in, the room got quiet.
“He comes up to me and says, ‘George! I’m glad you made it!’ ” Houraney recalled.
“ ‘Donald, look,’ I said, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ ” Houraney recalled. “He said, ‘I’d much rather have you on my side than against my side.’ ”
Harth and Houraney divorced a few months after the Christmas party. Harth moved to New York, where she is a makeup artist. And she seems to have reconciled with Trump.
She recently requested tickets to one of Trump’s rallies, which she attended with a friend. They went backstage to meet with the man she once accused of making unwanted sexual advances.
“She’s not changing the complaint or anything around that. She stands by the complaint,” said Chuck Jones, a former publicist for Maples who called the Globe on Harth’s behalf. “She wants to emphasize what happened 20 years ago is not the same situation as exists today. But she doesn’t want to update it.”